When Pain Management Doesn't Work

No matter the type of pain that you constantly have to manage, whether it’s in your shoulders, neck, knees, or in your lower back, you might often find that medication isn’t the solution to your problem. In this article, we’ll look at what other options you have if your medication-based pain management plan doesn’t work anymore (or you just want to stop taking it), and you are in pain and don’t know what to do. We’ll focus on exercise therapy, in particular, especially since a lack of physical activity can cause or add to your pain. We’ll also include some other tips, just so you know what other therapies you have at your disposal.

How can exercise help manage your pain?

There are many benefits to using exercise for managing pain, and they are quite well-documented in a broad range of clinical settings.

Exercise can be used to alleviate your discomfort if you suffer from knee osteoarthritis, low back pain during pregnancy, or non-specific back pain. It can also assist patients with managing their chronic non-cancer pain conditions.

Body Pains

Exercise is a great way to alleviate body pains.

Chronic pain affects more than 100 million adults in the United States alone, and it costs up to $600 billion per year in medical treatments.

So, what can exercise do for you? Depending on your state of health, exercise can help decrease inflammation and overall pain levels, but also increase mobility, and muscle mass -required to hold your bones in the right place, overall, around joints. However, since, in some situations, exercise can be dangerous, you should have a talk with your physician before deciding on a particular kind.

What types of exercise are recommended for chronic pain?

High-intensity aerobic activity decreases pain effectively and significantly, but it is not suitable for older patients, people with weak muscles, or those that are very out of shape. These exercises could either be unrealistic or unsafe for them, particularly for people who have disabilities.

Nevertheless, there are types of exercise that can have great results in dealing with pain and they can be split up into several categories.

  • Cardio exercise
  • Stretching exercise
  • Relaxation exercise
  • Strengthening exercise

Cardiovascular exercise

Cardiovascular exercise provides a wide range of mental and physical benefits and it can be particularly helpful for individuals trying to manage chronic pain. Some types of cardio can be done with no equipment, and more importantly, it can be done at any time of your convenience.

Swimming or water aerobics and walking are two of the lightest and safest cardio exercises that you might want to try. Walking just 30 minutes three to five times per week can help increase your endurance and strength, and it can also improve your heart health.

People who have mobility issues can largely benefit from swimming or water aerobics. Unlike other types of cardio, these are low-impact exercises that essentially keep you moving without adding much stress on your muscles or joints. On top of that, swimming can be an excellent way of lowering your stress or anxiety levels.

Swimming or Water Aerobics

People with mobility issues can still do cardio by swimming or doing water aerobics.


If you have chronic pain in your neck or lower back area, stretching can make you feel less stiff, and it can also relieve muscle tension. Two of the best-known types of exercise that involve stretching are yoga and pilates.

A study published in the Journal of Pain Research showed that Hatha yoga, in particular, can reduce the physical and psychological clinical signs of pain in women that have fibromyalgia. Hatha yoga combines breathing, gentle postures, and meditation.

Aerial yoga is another type that you might want to try if you don’t want to put as much pressure on your joints. This one, too, can help with both physical pain, but also with emotional trauma.

Before joining a yoga or pilates class, do consider that some of the exercises might be too intense for your activity level or resistance, or might complicate your otherwise existing health conditions.

Talk with your yoga instructor so that they know what type of poses are best for your specific case. More importantly, even though yoga is a gentle type of exercise, it’s always a better idea to do it with someone present so that you know you are doing the poses correctly and you run no risk of hurting yourself.

If you don’t want to join a class or begin doing light yoga on your own at home with video courses, you can still stretch safely. Do a bit of research on scapula and neck stretches or low back and glute stretches, for example, depending on where you feel pain.

Aerial Yoga

You might want to try aerial yoga since the poses don’t put as much pressure on your joints.

Relaxation exercises

Even though it is considered to be a passive type of exercise compared to the others that we have showcased here, visualization can still help with your pain. Merely deep breathing and doing some light stretching at the same time can decrease your discomfort.

You could lie on your back on a yoga mat or the floor, place your hands on your stomach and relax your feet and shoulders. Close your eyes and breathe deeply through your nose, exhaling through your mouth and making sure that you release all the air.

Focus on your belly movements as you breathe deeply and try to visualize your pain going away. While this technique might not work for severe pain, it might still be useful for people who find that they are capable of focusing properly.

Needless to say, you can repeat this type of exercise throughout your day as per your schedule or whenever you feel the need to do so.

What else can you do?

When all else fails and you don’t notice any significant improvements to your pain levels with exercising, you might want to go in a different direction.

We do advise against stopping your workout regime if you have started and created a routine. You can always try different types of exercise until you find the one that best suits your body and your specific conditions. Remember that seeing the results of your exercise routine normally takes longer than you would want. Be patient, and you won’t regret it.

Still, here are some ideas of what you could do when both medication and exercise don’t seem to help your pain.

MB Zen Yoga Mat

Seeing the results of your exercise may take longer but be patient and you won’t regret it.

Strengthening exercises

Building your strength can be essential, particularly as we age. Increasing your endurance can help stabilize your joints and also assist you in maintaining the right posture throughout the day.

One of the most common types of strengthening exercises is weightlifting. Many people shy away from weightlifting as they picture bulky guys lifting humongous plates on a barbell. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just like yoga, weightlifting can be adapted to every user, according to their level. Think of working out with your bodyweight, and that’s a kind of weightlifting. Sometimes even your own body weight might be too much for you and so you would need to scale down to lighter weights. This is the key of weightlifting is that it can be scaled up and down according to your own needs.

For example, you could try doing squats or leg lifts when you’re on all fours, sit-ups, or push-ups — all of these you can do at home with no equipment.

If you want to get into this kind of physical activity, first have a talk with a trainer, and always pace yourself when doing these exercises.

Just so you know, bulking up doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of consistent and focused training over the period of years, paired up with quite specific nutrition. So, don’t worry about doing some weightlifting to stay healthy.

Why do some people choose strength training over cardio or light exercise?

The answer to this question is that many studies have found that it is better for health, general fitness, and also weight loss, especially compared to cardio workouts.

Cardio exercise is very time-consuming and repetitive, and it also puts people at risk of sustaining injuries, such as plantar fasciitis, shin splints, or iliotibial band syndrome.

By contrast, strength training can be done precisely and safely, especially when aided by an experienced trainer.

Just like yoga, weightlifting can be scaled up and down according to your own needs.

Keep a pain journal

As tedious as it might seem, jotting down the instances in which you feel pain and the way they are connected to your activity throughout the day or the exact time they happen can be very useful.

Keeping a pain journal can also help you track the medications that you have taken or other therapies that you might have tried. You can then use all of this information to find the right treatment with your physician’s help.

Ask your physician for other procedures or medications

You should get as informed as possible about the drugs that your doctor recommends and also ask why they make a good fit for you. Some medications can have serious side effects, so it’s essential to be honest and clear with your physician about your expectations and the other conditions you might have.

Physical pain can sometimes be a result of emotional pain, so do ask your doctor about getting antidepressants if you feel that this might be an option. Always factor in side effects before making a decision.

Try alternative therapies

Doctors can use a variety of methods to alleviate your pain, and some of them can be effective, but they’re still riskier compared to their natural counterparts.

For example, depending on the injury or inflammation you have, some doctors might recommend injecting steroids or even anesthetics into your painful areas. Pain can be treated with surgery, too, or with anti-seizure medication.

Whether you have tried some of these therapies and they haven’t worked or you want to try something less risky, you might be interested in alternative therapies. This means that you could use herbs or supplements for reducing your inflammation, for instance.

Acupressure or acupuncture can sometimes be effective in treating headaches or back and neck pain. Finally, you can also try topical gels or creams, whether they contain arnica, capsaicin, or menthol.

No matter which one of these you want to try, make sure you ask your doctor about their safety and effectiveness before deciding to go down this road.

Doctor's Advice

Ask your doctor about the safety and effectiveness of any alternative therapy before deciding.

Get a second opinion

If you go to your primary care physician and you feel like they might not be able to address your specific needs, you can always ask them to refer you to a pain specialist.

Not all types of pain are the same, and they also have different causes. It’s almost impossible to manage your pain levels if you don’t know what you are suffering from. Therefore, getting the correct diagnosis from a medical professional is always the right way of going about things.

Getting a second opinion never hurts. In fact, you might find a therapy that actually works, one that you haven’t tried before or that you never knew existed.

In my personal case (spondylolisthesis S1-L5), I had to go to four different doctors until I found one whose treatment didn’t involve taking drugs for the rest of my life. It was purely based on core strengthening exercises. It was very painful at first, but I stuck with the routine. The pain started fading and in a couple of months I was free from it.

So, don’t give up!

What sort of pain are you suffering from? What have you tried that worked for you? Please let us know in the comments. Sharing your experience could mean helping someone else live pain free.



Co-founder of MB Zen, digital nomad and freedom seeker. Loves developing projects that improve people’s lives. Functional training, yoga, and healthy eating define his lifestyle since he got his back injured. Fell in love with Yin yoga from the very first session though he won’t say no to any other kind of yoga.